Playwright Explores Faith and Connection in an Idaho Big-Box Store

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Will (Robert Parsons*), Pauline (Gwen Loeb*), and Leroy (Patrick Russell*) have lunch in the Hobby Lobby break room in 'A Bright New Boise'

Samuel Hunter, the New York-based playwright whose Obie-winning play, A Bright New Boise, comes to the Aurora Theatre this fall, doesn't want to give audiences characters they can pigeonhole right away.

"I'm more moved by dramatic stories where I'm brought to an understanding of someone I might not relate to immediately," Hunter says. "A lot of times when a play starts, the audience is thinking, 'Oh, who's my guy? Who am I asked to identify with?'"

In A Bright New Boise, Will applies for a job at a big-box craft store to connect with his son. This is something audiences can relate to, Hunter thinks. But then they learn some things about Will -- a fundamentalist who thinks the Rapture is coming soon -- that may make them look at him a little differently.

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Aurora Theater
Playwright Samuel Hunter

"As the play goes on, they see, oh wait, he has these beliefs that I don't identify with," Hunter said. "If you talk to most theater goers, I think they'd say, 'Oh, fundamentalists are just crazy, and I don't understand them.'"

Hunter, who went to a fundamentalist high school in northern Idaho, finds questions of faith fascinating. Hunter's parents weren't fundamentalists, but he went to the school because it offered a good, classical education, where he read Herodotus and Thucydides in 8th grade and studied Latin.

"At the time it was the best decision for everybody," Hunter said. "I was a painfully awkward kid, so there I didn't have to be a jock and I didn't have to be a cool kid. I could read Herodotus and play classical piano, which is what I wanted to do."

At first Hunter tried on some fundamentalist beliefs, but he said he realized fairly quickly they weren't a good fit. When he came home talking about how teachers said evolution was a fraud, for example, his parents (who he calls smart, well-read, and thoughtful) encouraged him to think critically about what he was learning.

"I never really subscribed to those beliefs," Hunter said. "And since I was gay, that put everything they were telling me into question."

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David Allen
Will (Robert Parsons*) looks for divine answers in 'A Bright New Boise'

At the school, teachers believed students should be aware of non-Christian literature, and Hunter's English teacher read the class T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

"It was under the guise of 'Isn't this silly?' and I remember being like, 'What IS this?'" said Hunter, who made his way to Allen Ginsberg, who he calls the patron saint of his teenage years.

Poetry eventually led him to play writing.

"I quickly discovered what I liked about poetry was reading it out loud, and I liked dialogue and playing with words," Hunter said. "My first plays were very language-based."

A Bright New Boise, like all of Hunter's plays, is set in his home state. He says he's tried leaving Idaho out, but it never really works.

"It's weird - there's nothing fundamentally Idaho about them," he said about his plays. "There's no particular dialect, and it's not like they sit around talking about potatoes."

When Hunter tried writing a play set in an unidentified place, he felt like something was lost.

"It's something about me and the way I approach a play that forces me to take it seriously," he said. "If I'm non-specific, I lean on archetypes more. It's like Idaho is a scaffolding for me."

A Bright New Boise plays November 8 through December 8 at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets ($32-60) and information the public can call (510) 843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.

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